In 1978, an eight-year-old Meredith was playing in the mud by her letterbox, contemplating how to kill herself. A Salvation Army officer drove up and invited her to Sunday School. Now, 40 years later, that little girl is running for Gisborne’s mayoralty.
There have been days lately when Meredith Akuhata-Brown has caught herself thinking: ‘God are you sure? You know this is me, Meredith, here, eh? With my violent upbringing, weird ways and outgoing personality? Running for Mayor—are you sure?’
This touch of self-doubt is ironic because Meredith’s mantra, as she moves about her beloved community is: ‘Who are you and what’s your story?’ Meredith believes in a God who can do more with a surrendered life than could ever be imagined; and that someone’s past does not need to dictate their future. Meredith, herself, is living proof.
Born and raised in Puhi Kaiti, one of Gisborne’s poorest neighbourhoods, Meredith is the sixth of seven children. At home, God and faith were never talked about. No grace before meals, nothing.
‘My Dad was an alcoholic so life at home was difficult. Domestic violence and abuse were normal facets of daily life. I was utterly miserable. I was just a child, but I reached the depths of despair and didn’t want to be on the planet anymore. I remember thinking, “If there’s something bigger out there—more than this—I need to know. God if you’re real, help me—show yourself!”’
At that very moment, a red station wagon came around the corner and pulled up next to Meredith. Captain Jim Miller was picking up the kids next door for Sunday School and asked if she wanted to come, too.
‘In that moment my whole world changed. The only place I ever felt safe was at school. Why hadn’t anyone told me there was school on Sundays?! I thought: “Wow! Count me in”,’ Meredith recalls.
‘When we arrived at the old citadel on Gladstone Road, I looked out the car window and saw a family out front. The man kissed his wife and kids, and I remember thinking: “Where on earth am I? What is this place?” It was all so foreign.
‘A few years later I gave my heart to Jesus and became a Junior Soldier, but really, God saved me that day when Jim picked me up—literally.’
Life at home didn’t change much for Meredith, but she now had a faith community around her. ‘I still consider Jim and Anne Millar to be the first faith influencers in my life. Jim was a gentle, kind, fatherly figure. Obviously today we don’t encourage kids to take candy from strangers, but Jim was the real deal—and his lollipops were what I considered to be the high end of lollipops! Chocolate eclairs—no cheap stuff! But there was something telling in that small action. That’s how much he cared about us—nothing but the best!’ laughs Meredith.
Meredith found a place of belonging and nurture in the care of youth leaders Grant and Doreen Harris. But Bible study was the catalyst for really building Meredith’s faith. ‘Being grounded in the word at a young age was such a blessing. It became so evident to me that the Bible was a resource that I needed to be strongly connected to.’
When God answered Meredith’s cry back in 1978, coupled with what she was learning in the Bible, she learnt not to hesitate in asking for what she wanted. ‘As a young person I remember praying, “God all I want is to marry my first boyfriend and know what a real family is”. I felt God saying to me: “If you honour me, I will give you the desires of your heart”. And he’s done that my whole life,’ Meredith testifies.
Meredith met Jason, from the local Apostolic Church, at a YFC (Youth for Christ) event. ‘The wider church community is such a great space for meeting your future spouse,’ she laughs. Married for 27 years now with three young-adult children, Meredith explains that she was very apprehensive about being a mum at first.
‘I was truly nervous about parenting, coming from such a broken family and violent background. I had to do a lot of work on myself because I felt so inadequate. I relied big time on the support and encouragement of our church family. And I daily thank God that Jason came from such a loving and nurturing Christian whānau.
‘Jason carries patience, understanding, forgiveness—things that didn’t come naturally to me. Our kids have benefited from having such a Godly man as their dad. For sure, they have been exposed to my boldness, but that’s so beautifully complimented by Jason’s grace.’
Jason and Meredith returned to The Salvation Army when their two daughters were pre-schoolers, and Meredith became involved with Mainly Music. Their son was born during this time and was very unwell at birth. ‘God added a Sallie whānau to the support around us because it was such a difficult and traumatic time for us.
‘The nerves about being an adequate mum came back, but God never let me down,’ she recalls. Relentless hospital visits ensued, with trips to Starship in Auckland, but Meredith found she was able to make a difference as she listened and connected with struggling families in those spaces.
God began challenging Meredith about being intentionally involved with people outside the usual church spaces. It was a nudge from God that led her to apply for a position as a school social worker. ‘I wasn’t qualified—all I had was my life experience and passion—but I just knew I could make a difference. I prayed “God if this is where you want me, you have to make it happen”.’ She got the job over others who were qualified.
Meredith went on to work in two other high schools, before accepting a position with the police as Youth Offending Prevention Coordinator. From there, she moved into the realm of youth justice as an advocate for youth court. There are now 16 of these youth courts on local marae throughout New Zealand.
For Meredith, youth work and the social service sector had become a natural fit, so she began studying toward a Diploma in Youth Work through Praxis. It was during this period of learning that she made an unsettling discovery. She’d always believed herself to be Ngāti Oneone of Ngāti Porou descent, and was shocked to discover she didn’t whakapapa as strongly to the Tairāwhiti region as she’d always believed.
‘At the tender age of 37, I found out that I’m actually Tainui. We hadn’t talked much about whakapapa growing up, with my dad being Pākehā with Welsh/English roots. But I discovered Mum’s whānau whakapapa from Pukekohe, down through to the Wairarapa.
‘I was heart-broken to be honest. I was telling an elder I wasn’t really an East Coast Māori, but she said the most beautiful thing to me: “I knew that—I remember when your mother first arrived here. But don’t worry, we whāngai-ed you kids way back then”.
I was so touched because Gisborne is my home, so to be adopted into the local whānau is so precious to me.’
During her Praxis studies, Meredith connected with an American Collective called Freedom Writers (FW). Inspired, she trained to be an FW teacher, and travelled to the United States with local Gisborne school students in 2018.
As part of this, she came before local council advocating on several issues, and felt compelled to run for the Gisborne District Council. ‘In the political arena you can challenge policy and legislation. It made sense to be in that space and try and make a difference at that level.
‘Being a Christian in politics is challenging, but it’s my faith that keeps me honest. God calls me to be transparent and I’m always hopeful that when people hear me speak and see me in action, they realise I do this because of what I believe in.
‘I believe in the Kingdom of God coming here on earth, and that motivates me daily. I’m a Christian and I can’t not be one—it’s who I am—and God’s given me a boldness to speak up,’ says Meredith. She adds that, ‘being out-spoken is one of the reasons people say they vote for me. They believe I’ll be brave enough to speak on their behalf.’
Meredith is also acutely aware that like any secular sphere, she’s not wrestling against ‘flesh and blood’: ‘I’m really aware that while Council starts with a karakia, there are issues of injustice that need prayer muscle behind them. Scripture tells us to pray for our government, so my plea to churches is: please pray,’ she urges.
Now, Meredith is taking another bold step: ‘I had a stranger come up to me in the supermarket recently and say, “Please stand for the mayoralty”. I said: “I’m thinking about it”. She said: “good”.’
But Meredith felt it was such a big decision, she needed confirmation from God: ‘A visiting elder at our family’s current place of worship, Wainui Beach Community Church, had a word for Jason and me. She said: “I felt the Lord say it’s time to step out. Over your lives there has been a powerful anointing; God wants you to be who you are called to be and wants you to stand confidently in that, because in this day God is going to use you”. What could I say to that other than, “OK, I’m trusting you God”,’ Meredith laughs.
‘The irony is that I don’t have a really strong sense that I’m going to win. I might—but if I can increase participation in the democratic process, that’s a win for me. I want to see young people, Māori, and those who wouldn’t normally vote, talking about issues that affect our community. My faith dictates that this has to be about democracy in action first and foremost.
It’s not all about me!’
Meredith is no stranger to The Salvation Army youth scene, having spoken at a recent Northern Youth Councils. She has just been announced as a speaker at the MORE conference in July, run by the Territorial Youth and Children's Departments.
‘MORE is such a fantastic concept! I know that when there is more of God and less of me, I’m in a much stronger position,’ reflects Meredith. ‘I believe in a God who looks at our weakness and frailty, our sin and simplistic thinking, and sees potential we just can’t see. He sees “more”.
‘I want young people and youth leaders to grasp that no matter what you think about yourself, or where you’ve come from, he sees more. We focus on our “less-ness”, and we limit God. But he’s in the “more” of his promises!’
Her passion for young people is informed by her own upbringing: ‘I desperately want young people to know that God is in the middle of their struggles,’ says Meredith. ‘I know that feeling of deep despair—I’ve been there—and I can easily go back and be that little girl playing in the mud thinking, “I can’t do this anymore”.
‘But I’ve also seen what God can do when we trust him for more, because he’s done it for me again and again. The clouds will part, and the sun will shine again. He promises to never let us go.’
In one sense, that little girl sitting in mud has come a long way—but in another, her roots are deep in the soil where God wants her to bloom.
By Jules Badger (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 1 June 2019, p6-9. You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.